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Beijing: Lighting the way

As the Olympic torch completes its long journey to Beijing in time for this summer’s Games, Nathan May follows in its path and reports from China, a country under the microscope

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China has been on my ‘to do’ list for many years, and with the hotly anticipated Olympic Games held in Beijing, 2008 represented the perfect opportunity.

China is a country undergoing a fast-paced transition. Driven by a ruthlessly powerful economy and an intimidating work ethic amongst its people, the country continues to change drastically before wide-eyed onlookers from the western world. Whole cities are reconstructed, with additional sky-scrapers rising up in a matter of months. And the economy is growing at such a rate that it threatens to out muscle even the most powerful western countries.

Starting my journey in the South, I decided it would be apt to follow in the footsteps of the honoured athletes who were winding their way towards the nations capital with the symbolic Olympic torch. This route began in the multi-cultural hub of Shanghai, onto neighbouring Suzhou and then up the east coast to Beijing.

A green games
Such is the attention to detail that has been attributed to these Games, that even the torch itself has been specially designed to symbolise the countries intention to host an ultra-modern Games.

The torch boasts strong Chinese characteristics, showcasing national design and technical capabilities. Not only that though, the torch has been adapted to embody the concept of a Green Olympics. Propane has been used to light the travelling torch which is readily available at low prices and crucially only carbon dioxide and water remain after the burning process, eliminating any risk of pollution.

Of course, this is only a small gesture of what has been attempted on a much larger scale. In the run up to these Games, Beijing officials have taken measures to ease the city’s notorious congestion problems and air pollution, by encouraging members of the public to take public transport to work or car share.

After initial fears that Beijing’s air pollution could force the delay or postponement of some outdoor endurance events, traffic control measures were introduced which removed 1.3 million of the city’s three million vehicles per day from Beijing’s roads, and cut air pollution by up to 20 percent.

Sister cities
Beijing has strong support from China’s second city, Shanghai. Helping host a number of the events, this multi-cultural hive of activity was my first stop. Visitors are whisked from the airport to the centre of Shanghai in record time by the bullet train. The train reaches top speeds of around 430kmh, and with the countryside a blur as you look out of the window, it is easy to confuse arriving in Shanghai with travelling to the year 3000.

As China’s business hub, many large multi-national companies have set up headquarters here in recent years. People from around the world are attracted to Shanghai, not solely for the business prospects, but for the high standards of living and acceptance of western culture.

I touched down in Shanghai in May, as the torch passed through the city. It was instantly clear to see the importance the Chinese people had placed on this. The streets were immaculate and the crowds showed up in their drones. Shanghai is an ultra-modern city with a large financial hub located in Pudong. The Bund, which runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River in the heart of Shanghai, plays host to the bulk of the sky-scrapers and makes for an awe-inspiring sight as night falls and the neon lightshow begins.

Neighbouring Shanghai, and some way behind in size and pace of life, the city of Suzhou welcomed the torch next. Only a relatively short train journey from Shanghai, it is intended that the eastern border of Suzhou will spread far enough to meet the furthest reaches of Shanghai’s western boundary, to form one massive city hub in the south. Today though, the cities remain divided and Suzhou harbours its own vast finance and business centre that bustles away contently. The finance quarter is pleasantly juxtaposed with the old city, behind the ancient walls and interlaced with beautiful traditional canals.

These canals make up part of China’s Grand Canal system, the longest ancient  canal in the world. It passes through the cities of  Beijing and  Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong,  Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th century BC, although the various sections were finally combined into one during the Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD).

The total length of the Grand Canal is roughly 1,770km. When the Grand Canal was completed, Suzhou found itself strategically located on a major trade route. In the course of the history of China, it has been a metropolis of  industry and commerce on the south-eastern coast of China. Now the canals around Suzhou are more a tourist attraction than anything else. A great way to explore the city is by bike, where you can sneak off the beaten track and find yourself cycling along a traditional cobbled old street beside one of the serene canals.

Suzhou is also famous for its Classical Gardens. Added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997, Suzhou’s gardens are a place for relaxation and reflection, providing the noisy tour groups have moved on. The Master of the Nets Garden was only a short walk from my hostel, and provided welcome relief from the busy streets that surrounded it. The Garden is recognised for its representation of the designers’ adept skills for synthesising art, nature, and architecture to create unique metaphysical masterpieces. The initial construction dates back over 800 years, and its physical form has changed drastically since. But the name and spirit of the garden remain intact.

Another of Suzhou’s famous Gardens that is certainly worth a look is the Humble Administrator’s Garden to the north east of the city. At 51,950 m² it is the largest garden in Suzhou, and generally considered the finest garden in southern China. Try to avoid one of the package tours, they do not allow the freedom you need to fully appreciate the place. Making your way there by bike is easy and main roads can be avoided by following the network of canals that lead directly to the entrance.

From Suzhou, I took the overnight train to Beijing, leaving behind the torch as it made its way north by hand. I arrived in Beijing two months prior to when the torch would arrive and mark the opening of the Games. I was keen to see the preparations and get a feel for the place before it welcomes an expected 500,000 visitors.

Show off
It is estimated a global audience of four billion, the largest in Olympic history, will witness these Games. Prompted by this invasion, Beijing officials have implemented brisk ‘westernisation’ in everything from hotel rooms to manners. Spitting on the street for example, a favorite past time it seemed, has been banned. The infamous city smog too would seem to have been diluted, as I experienced blue skies and fresher air than I had been expecting.

The Olympics have certainly hastened Beijing’s physical transformation. Unlike Athens four years ago, that slowly crawled to completion with little time to spare prior to the event, the super-efficient Chinese have made steady progress on £20bn worth of state-of-the-art venues, roads and subways. No expense has been spared, with much of the immense cost going towards the construction and modernisation of the 37 Olympic venues, including the National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest because of the striking design of its 42,000 tonnes of interlocking steel girders.

As the capital city, Beijing is the political, cultural and diplomatic centre of China and is home to more than 11 million people. I found the city has plenty to offer as a sideshow for the Olympics. There are 7,300 cultural relics and historical sites, with the best-known being the Great Wall of China. Having heard the horror stories concerning certain parts of the wall, and rollercoaster rides, I was sure I didn’t want to fall into a tourist trap. Heading that bit further from Beijing on a four hour minibus ride did the trick, and I completed a 10km day hike on an old section of the wall near Simatai.

Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City make for a stunning focal point to Beijing. One can easily spend a day wandering around the never-ending Chinese imperial palace, that dates back from the mid Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. For almost five centuries, it served as the home of the Emperor and his household, and the extravagant architecture and painstaking attention to detail is there for all to see.

Building hype
China’s preparations for the Games have been undertaken with such intensity that it is thought even the medal tables will be affected. As the world’s most populous nation China has a huge reserve of human capital to draw on, and just as Russia and Australia have done in the past, China has set up a number of sporting academies to nurture the talents of its athletes. In order to try and increase the medal hall work has been done to build teams in non-traditional sports such as beach volleyball and tennis while preserving its strength in others such as diving and gymnastics. During my time in Beijing, advertising campaigns depicting the Chinese Volleyball team adorned many of the street corners, and a medal is almost expected it seems.

With such attention to detail, and thorough planning, one can hardly see how Beijing could not deliver the most spectacular Games to date. The capital is a fascinating place full of culture and charm. If you are joining the 500,000 expected visitors this August, or if you plan to sit back and take it in from the comfort of your own home, enjoy the show as China’s capital has prepared an Olympic extravaganza.

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